Trending Topics

DOJ, experts praise Albuquerque PD’s compliance with use of force reforms

The APD is now compliant with the settlement agreement that resulted from the DOJ investigation, and must enter a “sustainment” phase to last until the end of 2025

Albuquerque Police Department generic

“This is a victory we’ve long wanted to see,” Paul Killebrew, deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, said of the 96% compliance with several hundred reforms set out in the agreement.

Albuquerque Police Department

By Colleen Heild
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A U.S. Department of Justice investigation a decade ago found a disturbing pattern and practice of the use of unconstitutional excessive force by Albuquerque police officers, particularly with the mentally ill or those in crisis as the victims.

The significant turnaround in the operations of the agency, DOJ officials told a federal judge in Albuquerque on Tuesday, is due in part to the creation of a new city agency to handle calls from those in distress and the overhaul of police excessive force policies and training, and improvements in supervisory oversight and evaluation.

Officer involved shootings, some “deeply troubling,” are still occurring, and the DOJ is monitoring those incidents. But serious use of force incidents are down, DOJ officials said. And the shootings generally have been found to be constitutionally sound, according to testimony at the hearing.

The APD is now fully compliant with the court-approved settlement agreement, known as CASA, that resulted from the DOJ investigation. That means the APD enters a new “sustainment” phase to last until the end of 2025. If there’s no backsliding, the DOJ consent decree can end at that point.

“This is a victory we’ve long wanted to see,” Paul Killebrew, deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, said of the 96% compliance with several hundred reforms set out in the agreement.

“We do have a reason to celebrate a milestone,” said U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Alexander Uballez , who added that “much remains to be done.”

“The coming years offer hope,” Uballez said. “This change is about taking our city back. This milestone belongs to our city, and to all of us.”

The comments came during a five-hour hearing before U.S. District Judge James Browning, who also peppered the experts and attorneys with questions ranging from APD’s staffing to whether Albuquerque is No. 1 in the country for violent crime per capita.

(The number of police officers currently is 950, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina told the judge. And contrary to some news reports, it is the state of New Mexico that is highest in the country per capita for violent crime.)

The DOJ officials at the hearing applauded APD leadership for increasing transparency in the department and praised the quality and thoroughness of its Internal Affairs investigations of police misconduct.

Independent monitor James Ginger, whose team is staying on through the next two years, told the judge, “Overall, I’m optimistic.”

“What I’ve seen is more than box-checking,” said Richard Necelis, associate monitor on Ginger’s team. “I’ve been looking at the disciplinary system since 2015. There really has been deep-rooted change.”

While APD achieved compliance, the remaining 4% of noncompliance pertains to the city’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency. That is primarily due to lack of staffing and timeliness of its investigations of complaints, DOJ officials said.

Killebrew told the judge that the civilian agency is improving its operations, and increased staffing is expected to help.

As for the APD, he said, “For two years, we want to see compliance be maintained and that can persuade us the reforms are durable.”

“We’ve learned over time these institutional reform cases can be complicated. We need to see systems implemented that will prevent a recurrence in the future,” Killebrew said.

Three other police agencies — in Portland, Seattle and the Virgin Islands —achieved compliance with DOJ consent decrees but couldn’t sustain that compliance for the two years that followed, he said.

Killebrew said it was premature to say what would happen if APD followed suit.

“We would have to see what noncompliance looks like,” Killebrew told the judge.

Taylor Rahn, an Albuquerque attorney representing the city of Albuquerque, told the judge that in 2023, in every APD officer-involved shooting, the suspect was armed and only one didn’t involve a firearm. And that was a knife.

Another trend: Much of the past use of deadly force was directed at people who were “in crisis.” But in 2023, none of the officer-involved shootings stemmed from calls initiated as behavioral health calls. Each started as an actual crime in process, Rahn said.

Killebrew said serious force incidents “continue to decline,” and there is progress the city has made outside of the court-approved settlement agreement, such as the creation of the Albuquerque Community Services agency that has diverted calls involving potentially mentally ill or distressed people away from an initial police response.

Browning said he’s been asked how APD can be in compliance with the CASA given that the level of police shootings is “at the same level as it was when you started this process. We are still having, I would say, troubling police shootings.”

“The number of police shootings is deeply troubling. It’s not what we anticipated. In 2024, we’re still watching what’s going on,” Killebrew said.

In the past, the DOJ investigation concluded, there was a high number of “unlawful” shootings followed by little to no accountability of officers who violated the Fourth Amendment.

But Killebrew said in the DOJ’s evaluation of 2022 and 2023 individual incidents and the internal systems used by the APD to evaluate them, “we did not see the pattern continuing.”

With training and de-escalation skills, police officers are using a different approach to handling difficult encounters, he added.

“All of these things help to ensure officers use force when necessary and only the amount of force necessary.”


(c)2024 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
Visit the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.